Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Rudd's inspiration?
image from Wikipedia
What a tawdry fortnight in Federal Parliament as our political leaders scrambled to occupy the moral low ground over asylum seekers heading for Australia in leaky boats.
And how easily those leaders fit Stanley Baldwin's jibe against London tabloid newspaper barons – “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”
It's a grand phrase, although (as pointed out later) it doesn't stand up to too much analysis. It is, however, apposite when we look at the attacks by Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and the Opposition's immigration shadow minister, Sharman Stone, on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's removal of the more brutal elements of the previous Liberal government's treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat from Asia.
Turnbull and Stone both went for the throat in their attacks on Rudd's policy. Turnbull, as is his practice, took up a glib phrase – Rudd had “rolled out the welcome mat” for “illegal immigrants” – and repeated it ad nauseam. On ABC radio, Dr Stone attacked Kevin Rudd but refused to answer when asked if she would go back to the old rules.
And that, essentially, is the prerogative of the opposition politician through the ages – to attack government policies, to sneer and jeer but refuse to say how they would do better. Power to attack, no responsibility to offer a solution.
More disgraceful was Kevin Rudd's apparent repudiation of the Christian values he espoused so publicly a year ahead of the 2007 Federal election in which he ousted Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.
As Rudd joined the auction for the moral low ground – dog-whistling the message, I'm treating the boat people just as brutally as they would – this angry old journo wanted to shout: “You're a Christian, for Chrissakes.”
Grumpy Old Journo acknowledges Christianity is a broad church, or collection of churches (as demonstrated in the past week when the Catholic church welcomed misogynists and homophobes who want to quit the Anglican communion – a move which should help both churches achieve their goals). Without any insincerity, Christians may adopt very different views across the political spectrum.
But Rudd, in his landmark essay in The Monthly in October 2006, was emphatic in his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rudd left us believing he sought to emulate the German theologian. In the second paragraph of his long Monthly essay, Rudd wrote:
And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.
Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Rudd also said this in his essay:
I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement [of church and state] should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.
Provided, one assumes, they're not in leaky boats headed for Christmas Island.
One notes, too, from Wikipedia that when the SS raided Abwehr military intelligence and uncovered the Resistance cell plotting to assassinate Hitler, they also found documents proving Bonhoeffer was involved in an Abwehr scheme smuggling German Jews into Switzerland.
A people-smuggler! “Vile”, if we use Rudd's word for people-smugglers.
Is it unworldly, appealing for moral leadership in our top politicians? What use is a politician of moral integrity when voted out of office?
Kevin Rudd is a cautious man. He remembers how John Howard won the 2001 “Tampa election” with his brutal treatment of the 438 asylum seekers rescued from a sinking boat – treatment which attracted votes from some blue-collar Labor and One Nation supporters.
But I believe times have changed, and Rudd could afford to risk a little of his remarkable political domination of Turnbull and accept the new mood.
Although most Australians still want strong border protection, few yearn for a return to the John Howard days. Most Australians now understand that almost all boat people held on Christmas Island are genuine refugees seeking asylum – and as such, it's incorrect to label them illegal immigrants.
Not only that, anyone who reads newspapers knows most illegal immigation problems are with people arriving on commercial airlines, not boat people, as yesterday's Sydney Sunday Telegraph explained.
Should we abuse the boat people as queue-jumpers, then?
Last April, Grumpy Old Journo argued that we should prefer refugees who “jump the queue” over those who wait passively in refugee camps waiting to go to whatever country they're allotted:
I believe most of those asylum seekers who turn up at Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island on leaky boats, especially those who've brought their families, have shown fitness to live in Australia and eventually become citizens.
As an amusing diversion, you might like to read what the British Journalism Review said about “prerogative of the harlot” a few years ago.
So the famous phrase, grand as it sounds, has no foundation in sense. Its actual author, Rudyard Kipling, clearly had not appreciated the economic and social situation of the average harlot, presumably being unacquainted with them. But when he was needed he was happy enough, as a journalist whose career had started on an Indian newspaper which supported the local government and was supported by government printing contracts, to lend his eloquence to the Prime Minister. Baldwin, after all, was not only his friend but his cousin.
And you may think of Malcolm Turnbull's repetitive phases – “cash splash” comes to mind – if you press on to read this:
There may be no kinship quite as close as that among the politicians of the present day and the people, paid or voluntary, who help to promote their policies. Nevertheless, the party in government and the parties in opposition can call on large numbers of such people, even if none of them has the facility of Kipling with persuasive words. Their purpose, as we are constantly reminded, is not to explain honestly and completely the problems the politicians face and the logical methods by which they are earnestly striving to solve them. It is to repeat and repeat whichever slogan the politicians want the electors to believe represents the most important issue of the day.